Christian Theologian 101: Pursue Character
Most undergraduate degrees in theology kick-off with a kind of Systematics 101. These are invaluable, serving to introduce budding young theologians and future gospel workers to systematic theology, making them aware of major doctrines and Christian thinkers. I hugely appreciated this course as a twenty-something student beginning my theological studies. But, in hindsight, I would have benefitted much more from a course primarily concerned with the character of a theologian or Christian leader, rather than the elementary content of theology.
Character Trumps Theological Content
I imagine that theological institutions would defend the absence of such a course—The Christian Theologian 101, if you will—on the grounds that spiritual maturation and character formation happen over the course of their students’ studies. Others might go further, insisting that this is simply not the responsibility of a theological college but the local church. The first view naively believes that merely learning biblical truth and consuming theological information will result in personal transformation; the second, quite remarkably, drives a wedge between Christian character and theological competency—something unknown to the New Testament. But those are quibbles for another time.
Since we find ourselves at the start of a new year, some of you will be embarking on theological studies, at a college or seminary. And in lieu of an introductory course majoring in the character and heart of a theologian, I intend to write a series of short posts that focus on the life of the theological student. These will take the form of exhortations, hopefully resulting in conversations among students and prayerful commitment to becoming a Christian theologian. Here I don’t mean gaining a greater command of Christian theology, but growing in Christian character while studying theology. As Helmut Thielicke writes, “A theological thought can breathe only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God.”
You’re More Than Your Thoughts—And Theology
Over the course of these posts I will make regular recourse to Thielicke’s A Little Exercise For Young Theologians (quoted above), and very likely to the writings of Marilynne Robinson. Listen to the former, making a point that fits really well with the thrust of this introductory post: “Faith must mean more to us than a mere commodity stored in the tin cans of reflection of bottled in the lecture notebook, whence at any time it may be reproduced in the brain.” Here Thielicke puts his finger on something James K. A. Smith has thankfully brought to many Christians’ attention in recent years. It is that we are more than our thoughts—however precise, innovative, or orthodox. Therefore theological education must be about much more than well-crafted doctrine and biblical concepts, reducing theology to a “commodity” rather than one of God’s gracious means in our spiritual growth.
Attending theological college or seminary is a glorious opportunity, the possibility of which we must always ascribe to God if we hope to use it for his glory. Crucially, it is not a timeout from developing character or growing in godliness to go deeper into doctrine. Instead, view the time ahead as an aspect of the broader Christian life. So, to conclude with Thielicke, “It is a commonplace we hear, and countless times have ourselves expressed, that theology has to do with life. This being so, it is only natural to begin with a meditation on how things stand with our Christian life in the midst of our course in theology, and how that life fares inside the race track of theological study—and not only fares, but how it can be made deeper, richer, and more fruitful.”